Soft Robotics (WUR)

Soft robotics is an emerging field aiming to create safe and affordable robots for close machine–human/plant interactions. The soft nature allows the robots to adapt to their surroundings, to perform different and even autonomous tasks without damaging delicate tissue. In this context, soft robotics is a suitable alternative approach for rigids robotic approach by providing us soft actuators, sensors, tools and structures. Soft robotics involves a host of new design challenges. In this field, nature plays an important role as a source of inspiration to provide us with concepts and solutions to develop soft-robotic systems.

Robotics has since long augmented human life. The emergence of soft materials (plastics, rubbers) and the ever increasing possibilities of implementing them via e.g. additive manufacturing and the miniaturization of electronics, has made it possible to expand the use of robotics into applications where a degree of gentleness is required, for instance, in dealing with plants, animals and food. With the emergence of the so-called “soft robotics” field, the autonomous robotic handling of living tissue in plants and animals seems within reach.

In this course, we aim to make students proficient in the understanding, design and implementation of Soft Bio-Robotic principles. The course builds on the course Biomimetics but can be followed independently. The Soft Bio-Robotics course will cover subjects such as grasping, manipulation and locomotion, all inspired by biological examples. We will teach a selection of techniques required for design and development of soft interfaces, sensors, control systems and actuators. In all our approaches, we combine advanced engineering concepts specifically required for soft robotics with bio-inspired design principles.

On the fundamental side, we will introduce relevant physical and mechanical principles and material properties on multiple scales. Towards applications, we will a range of design approaches. Examples include adhesion-control (how do tree frogs stick in a wet environment), stiffness-control (How do antagonistic principles provide stiffness modulation in fingers?) and actuation-based grasping (How to exploit friction?).

Once the space of design elements and applications is explored, prototypes, models and/or demonstrators will be built in the practicum part of the course. As part of the practicum, we will cover additive manufacturing and moulding techniques for the design of soft interfaces. Interdisciplinary student groups will design and create mechatronical components for soft biorobots, including (soft) sensors. The results can then lead to, for example, an adhesion-controlled gripper for fruit picking, a compliant robotic joint or artificial muscle as a soft actuator, or the development of a soft robotic skin with dynamic roughness. Students deliver written or oral group presentations of the mini-research projects.